from Third Coast, Fall 2010: Symposium on Writing and the Midwest
Kenneth Koch (1925-2002), the wondrously polymorphic poet of New Yorkistical champagne jazz playfulness, does not immediately come to mind as a midwestern writer—one doesn't think of him alongside Edgar Lee Masters, Sherwood Anderson, Philip Levine, James Wright—and he did not especially present himself to the world as an Ohio poet. He grew up in Cincinnati, then served in the Army, then attended Harvard, and then moved to New York City, and taught at Columbia for nearly all of his career, though with many travels abroad. Koch has been seen, and tended to see himself, as a writer who escaped the Midwest and never looked back. The truth (of course) is not that simple, and one of the many charms of his oeuvre is the way it makes room for fleeting but affectionate glances at his midwestern background.
Probably most bright talented teenagers who grow up anywhere but in a major cosmopolitan city tend to associate their hometown with limitations, dreary conventions, and benign (or not so benign) banality. So they busily imagine exciting elsewheres to which they might daringly dash or permanently emigrate. Kenneth Koch from Cincinnati became a lifelong traveler and tourist: his books contain more detailed accounts of experiences in foreign countries than the books of any other important American or British poet—more even than Byron, one of his key influences. Adventures in, or impressions of, various countries in Europe, Africa, and Asia show up in all of his fifteen or so collections of poems, and always in a spirit of excitement at being there, even when the particular experience he's recording is sad or disappointing. There is in these travel accounts a tinge of I-can-hardly-believe-I'm-really-here and I-want-to-prove-that-I've-been-here.
Inevitably, though, the Ohio world resided in Koch's memory. Once he had established his separateness from all that, he could—sparingly—glance at the American Midwest from a distance, the distance that can make any milieu seem amusingly strange. A pleasantly weird early poem "Geography" includes (without any orienting context) these lines: "In Chicago Louis walked the morning's rounds with agility. / A boy of seventeen and already recognized as a fast milkman!" "A Poem of the Forty-eight States" tosses forth lines like "In Zanesville, Ohio, they put a pennant up, ... And the soldiers were coughing on the streetcar in Minneapolis, Minnesota. / In Minocqua, Wisconsin, the girls kissed each other and laughed, / The poison was working in Monroe, Illinois ... Indiana! it is so beautiful to have tar in it!"
Koch was a generous and empathetic person, but he was also a startlingly restless person; he was always just about to decide that a situation had become boring and must be changed. This trait is vividly sketched in his poem "We Sailed the Indian Ocean for a Dime" where the yearning for the stimulation of newness can throw its romanticizing beam even on the city of his youth. Here is the second half of the poem.
We spent the five dollars in Biarritz in seven minutes
But at least we had a good meal and now we set sail
I've heard that Milwaukee is full of dimes and quarters
And that Cincinnati is the place for half dollars
I can see all that silver I can see it and I think I want it
Can see the sunlight lighting those silver faces
In far-off Cincinnati
The slim half dollars lying in the leaves
In the blue autumn weather behind the
Conservatory of Music
Oh give me the money
That I may ascend into the sky
For I have been on so many boats and trains
While endlessly seeking the summits of my life!
That stanza touchingly intuits something that Koch sometimes resisted knowing, which is that sheer freshness of experience will always be elsewhere, and that a livable life requires some acceptance of the familiar and local. After all, the shining exotic is always someone else's homey local. Oklahoma was exotic to Kafka.
In Koch's funny eight-page poem "The Artist" we find a complicated interplay between his feeling that his midwestern home-world is ridiculously banal and his sense that imagination can render any location exotic and stimulating. The poem affectionately satirizes its speaker, an artist whose infinite narcissism and egocentrism suffuse his notes on his midwestern projects.
Cherrywood avalanche, my statue of you
Is still standing in Toledo, Ohio.
And I made an amazing zinc airliner
It is standing to this day in the Minneapolis Zoo.
I often think Play was my best work.
It is an open field with a few boards in it.
Children are allowed to come and play in Play
By permission of the Cleveland Museum.
I look up at the white clouds, I wonder what I shall
do, and smile.
Soon this genius has created an installation called "The Magician of Cincinnati" consisting of twenty-five giant stone staircases built in the Ohio River between Cincinnati and Louisville. The artist is pleased to think that boats on the river will collide with his masterpiece, and that it can never be removed. The installation is to be celebrated by "a game of water baseball" between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Cincinnati Redlegs.
Kenneth Koch, poet of New York, Florence, Rome, Paris, Sweden, foreignness, aficionado of Ariosto, Byron, Stendhal, Mallarmé, Proust, Kawabata—you might not expect the man to be a baseball fan, but in fact he was a lifelong fan of the Cincinnati Reds. Koch enjoyed the nutty ritualism and the steeped-in-lore quality of baseball. The hero of Ko, his comic epic in Ariosto's ottava rima, is a superhuman Japanese pitcher who (after some troubles) enables the Dodgers to beat the Reds—a victory of marvelous magic over midwestern muscle, yes, but also a chance to luxuriate in memories of Cincinnati baseball.
By far Koch's most autobiographical book of poems is New Addresses (2000), in which each poem apostrophizes some feature of his life. "To Living in the City" pinpoints a moment when the young Kenneth realized New York was where he must henceforth live:
A woman waits
For me on West
Seventeenth Street I
Run down to my parents
Who are honking the car
We're supposed to drive home
To Cincinnati together there's
No hope! Kenny! my
Father says. Look at you
You're covered with
Sexual adventure was presumably not impossible in Ohio, but Manhattan meant for him a circus of simultaneous stimulations—sexual, intellectual, artistic—not bountifully apparent back in the Midwest. "To My Father's Business" describes Kenneth at age fifteen suspecting his vocation will not be for selling office furniture.
I am sitting on a desk
Looking at my daddy
Who is proud of but feels unsure about
Some aspects of his little laddie.
I will go on to explore
Deep and/or nonsensical themes
While my father's on the dark hardwood floor
Hit by a couple of Ohio sunbeams.
Kenny, he says, some day you'll work in the store.
But I felt "never more" or "never ever."
In that passage the poet's pride in his artistic destiny coexists lightly with a tolerant affection for his father and the world of Cincinnati in 1940. "To My Father's Business" is Koch's most explicit evocation of what he fled from when he went East, and it lingers in the mind as biographical background for the hundreds of passages throughout his work where he savors names and images and facts connected with places extremely far from Ohio.
We could say that at some level Kenneth Koch was always on the run from that office furniture store. At the same time we could suggest that the most intense appreciation of metropolitan and cosmopolitan dazzlements is likely to belong to bright seekers who arrive from such elsewheres as the Midwest. Moreover, if we were inclined to be partisan on behalf of the Midwest, we might harbor an impression that the gentle humor and affirmative spirit of Koch's work—as in the passages I've quoted—have a flavor that seems actually sort of midwestern, reminding us of lovely people in such towns as Kalamazoo!
About the Author
Mark Halliday's most recent book of poetry, Keep This Forever, was published by Tupelo Press in 2008. He is the author of four previous books of poetry, Little Star, Tasker Street, Selfwolf and Jab, as well as the critical study Stevens and the Interpersonal. He co-authored with Allen Grossman a book on poetics, The Sighted Singer, and has published many essays on contemporary poets. Halliday has taught at Ohio University since 1996.
Western Michigan University
Editor: Laura Donnelly
Managing Editors: Eileen Wiedbrauk, Laura Zawistowski